Music in times of trouble

Feature Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not a place one would expect to hear an orchestra playing works by Ravel and Handel, but a group of musicians have been defying the odds since 1994.

Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not a place one would expect to hear an orchestra playing works by Ravel and Handel, but a group of musicians have been defying the odds since 1994. Photographs by Marcus Bleasdale, VII Photo. Rue Monkoto is a perfectly ordinary street in Kinshasa. There are potholes big enough to bury a dog, black mould creeps along the wall over an advertisement that promises Kiesse na Nzoto - joy of the heart. Smoke from oil lamps mixes with the stench of burning plastic and rotting rubbish. There is a cacophony of voices talking in Lingala, the local dialect, and French, diesel generators, car horns, Congolese rumba, the hammering of road repairs and the calls of traders. Water-sellers whistle "Ooooopüüü Ooooopüüü", meaning eau pure or clean water - which is sold in small plastic bags, each one a breeding ground for bacteria.

Suddenly we hear two musical notes: A, C. Followed by a melody: B-C-D-C-B-A. These sounds don't belong here, the three-quarter time doesn't suit this city - it is more reminiscent of flamenco dancers and bullfights. Behind a wall someone is playing the first notes of the Bolero by Maurice Ravel. On a trombone. The sound is joined by other pitches and tempos. A man's voice bellows "O Fortuna!" and starts reciting something that is familiar from music lessons: that's not Orff, is it? The sounds are coming from Number 88. In a yard beyond an iron gate a flock of chickens struts among trumpets, violins and trombones. It is Wednesday, 5.30pm and the OSK - Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste - is meeting for rehearsal. The mosquitos prepare for a feast. Eighty musicians who have to concentrate in the Kinshasa heat and have both hands on their instruments are easy meat.

It's hot in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the country is enjoying a rare period of stability after decades of war and regime change. That much is known to the rest of the world. But a symphony orchestra? A symphony orchestra needs an auditorium with good accoustics and climate-controlled rooms to store the instruments. It needs legible scores. It needs a budget and decent equipment. Above all, it needs an audience.

The musicians of the OSK get no fees, they pay for their own instruments and play on second-hand violins and trombones, each worth less than US$100 (Dh367). If insects or humidity devour another cello, Monsieur Albert, the all-round genius of the group, makes a new one. Scores are photocopied again and again or written out by hand. As for an auditorium, the orchestra rehearses in a hall where weddings are normally celebrated. The audience? There is no shortage of music-lovers in this city, but the driving beat of the Soukous or the Congotronics has fostered different listening habits than are required for a cantata. On this particular evening, six hens are listening. It is still three weeks until the next big performance in the Kasa Vubu Stadium . In addition to Ravel's Bolero, the programme will feature pieces by Dvorak, Carl Orff and the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.9.

The Bolero goes well in rehearsal. "My only masterpiece," Ravel is supposed to have quipped,"a pity that it contains no music." They don't see it that way in the Rue Monkoto. The flute and clarinet begin cleanly, the bassoon - the only one in the Congo - follows, a little too restrained. But then the piccolo spoils everything. Too high, too loud. "Hey, piccolo player, you weren't at the last rehearsal," complains the barefoot man on the bar stool that stands in for a conductor's podium. The light in the hall is dim. After the rehearsal, two hours of sweating through passages from Dvorak symphonies, a tricky choral section of the Carmina Burana and ever renewed attempts on the Bolero, he falls to his knees in front of Armand Diangienda asking for more precise musical instructions. The man on the bar stool is not just the maestro of the OSK, he is the grandson of Simon Kimbangu, a martyr, spiritual leader and symbol of Congolese nationalism, who died in 1951. Here in Congo, one doesn't address the descendants of such a man standing up. Not even if the matter is only the interpretation of a crescendo. Diangienda calls, "F", and taps his baton on the music stand. "Once more please, from the F."

Armand Diangienda is a small man with a quiet voice and a fondness for aviator sunglasses. When asked how the music of dead white men came to Rue Monkoto, he smiles, revealing a charming gap, and says, "Ondell." Ondell? Handel. George Frideric. It began with Handel's Messiah. Diangienda's father played the oratorio over and over at their home in Rue Monkoto. Let Us Break Their Bonds, or I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. And, naturally, the "Hallelujah" chorus. These, sung in English, were what the children sang in the Diangienda household and it never occured to anyone that this music was composed only for white people.

The first performance of the OSK took place 15 years ago. Maestro Diangienda brought together 10 self-trained church musicians, four violins and a double bass. If a string broke, it was replaced with a brake cable from a bicycle. Then a few cellos were added, and the musicians learnt the correct fingering by looking at photographs in books. Eleven months later, they had their premiere. A concert by musicians who had only been playing their instruments for a year?

"If you don't believe me," says Diangienda, "ask them." So we do. "We practised," says Albert Sheriff, 53, cellist, who supports his family of six as an electrician at the University of Kinshasa - despite the fact that electricity has been a rarity for years - and has a regular salary. "I could read music already, from my time with the flute group." Josephine Nsimba Mpongo, 37, who sells eggs in Kinshasa's main market every day from 6am to 4pm, and is a musician in the OSK every evening from 5pm to 9pm, says she took part in the 1994 concert after only a few weeks of lessons on the cello.

"Don't you know the three principles of Simon Kimbangu? Love, God's 10 commandments and work," she says, and plucks the strings of a double bass, which she currently plays along with the cello and tuba. "Well, we just rehearsed a lot," says her husband, Monsieur Albert, music teacher and driving force of the orchestra, who was the first to discover the correct way to hold a cello. ("It looked like a guitar"). He carelessly opens the worm-eaten lid of a piano, disturbing an army of cockroaches living between the keys.

In the end it doesn't matter how the OSK came into being. What is beyond dispute is that the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste performed for the first time on December 3, 1994, in the Palais du Peuple, the grandiose building dedicated by the former president, Mobutu Sese Seko, to his people, whose pockets he also plundered energetically. Most of Kinshasa's inhabitants were without water, electricity or sewerage. There was no public transport, no fire service, no police force. Founding a symphony orchestra in such times could be seen as an act of blind optimism.

The pieces performed were works by the Spanish composer Rodrigo, assorted church music and, of course, Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus. Mobutu's senior party faithful, known locally as grosses légumes - the big vegetables - applauded from the best seats. Their days were numbered. Congo, under enormous pressure from the inflow of refugees fleeing Rwanda and Burundi plunged into a brutal civil war. In 1997, Mobutu was overthrown by a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda and led by Laurent Kabila.

Within a year Kabila was himself challenged by an insurrection, again backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Troops from neighbouring countries intervened to support the regime. Despite a ceasefire in 1999 fighting continued. Following Laurent Kabila's assassination in 2001, his son, Joseph, became head of state and successfully negotiated the withdrawal of Rwandan forces; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. Congo's first elections for 45 years were held in 2007. A precarious peace has been established.

Throughout all this, the orchestra survived. Ten days to go until the concert. The maestro has taken Bolero out of the programme. The danger posed by the piccolo is too great and the attention of the audience might wander. Instead, Diangienda has brought in reinforcements: the choir will sing the fourth part of Beethoven's Symphony No.9 in the original German. Tonight a soprano given to gesturing like a diva joins the 60-strong choir, who are perched on plastic chairs in a side yard of the Diangienda house, and writes text on a blackboard. Not everyone has a copy of the score, and those who do strain to see anything in the semi-darkness. The electricity has failed again.

The choirmaster wants them to practise the German pronunciation. They begin: Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken Himmlische, Dein Heiligthum. The singers want to know why the word Tochter requires them to make a strange rasping sound that doesn't exist in Lingala, Kikongo or French. But they continue: Seid umschlungen, Millionen, von diesem Kuss der ganzen Welt...

Their tongues can't manage the short, sharp "s". What sort of language is this? For two hours they plough through Schiller's poem, word by word, line by line. Some of the singers have fallen asleep with exhaustion, but the choirmaster is merciless. "Again, from page 24, and wake up, everybody! " Then they risk it: they sing Freude, schöner Götterfunken and go on until Alle Menschen werden Brüder. It works surprisingly well. And this line, above all, contains so much bitter force: "All men will be brothers" - what an absurd statement in this country with its fractured history. At the concert they sing the Ode To Joy in English, after all. Almost 3,000 spectators have come to the Kasa Vubu Stadium, but they are not too enthusiastic about Beethoven. Dvorak's New World symphony, on the other hand, thrills them, as does the Chorus Of The Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's Nabucco and Orff's Carmina Burana. At the end they applaud wildly and are planning to send their children to music lessons.

"We win them over, sooner or later," says Monsieur Albert, the healer of instruments and master of improvisation. Kinsasha Symphony, a documentary about the orchestra's work, will have its world premiere on February 17 at the Berlin International Film Festival.

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